Asia's Apostles

The Taliban's abduction of 23 South Korean Christian missionaries in Afghanistan last Thursday has put South Korea's evangelical fervor under a microscope. Despite its long-standing shamanist, Buddhist and Confucian roots, South Korea has about 12,000 missionaries in 173 countries, second only to the United States. Today, almost half of South Korea's population is Christian. I remember looking through the window of our fifth-floor apartment in Seoul as a child and finding the night sky peppered with bright-red neon crosses. When I moved to America in my teens, the first faces to greet me were those of the Korean American evangelical Christians at John F. Kennedy International Airport, eagerly awaiting new arrivals with Bibles and taped sermons.

The hostages, members of Saemmul Church from Bundang, near Seoul, appear to have been somewhat naive. They were traveling from Kabul to Kandahar on one of the most dangerous routes in Afghanistan. They rode a charter bus often used by foreigners, immediately attracting attention, and they did not alert local police to their presence for fear of being questioned about their identity papers, the bus driver has said. Photos of some of the missionaries, mostly women in their 20s and 30s, have surfaced on the Internet; they are seen giddily posing in front of the government sign at Seoul's Incheon International Airport warning about the dangers of travel to Afghanistan.

This is not the first time South Korean missionaries have endangered themselves by entering war zones to gain converts. In April 2004, seven missionaries were kidnapped in Iraq (they were released within hours). In June that year, Kim Sun Il, a 33-year-old translator who had hoped to do missionary work in Iraq, was taken hostage and beheaded. Last summer, more than 1,000 Korean Christians, including many children, entered Kabul for a peace rally, only to be deported. Proselytizing is illegal in Afghanistan, where the Taliban has threatened to kill missionaries; yet South Korean Christians can't seem to take no for an answer.

It is peculiar that a country claiming to pride itself on its 5,000-year-old philosophical traditions has embraced Christianity with such unabashed eagerness. Roman Catholicism on the Korean Peninsula dates to the late 18th century, and the first Protestant missionaries from the United States arrived a century later. Unlike the Philippines, the most Christian country in Asia, South Korea was never colonized by a Christian nation. Many scholars, somewhat unconvincingly, theorize that Koreans turned to Christianity as a way of fighting for independence from on-and-off conquerors China and Japan, neither of which took to Christianity with similar zeal.

My deeply Confucian grandfather used to scoff at churches as the foreign devil. When my grandmother became ill and asked to be taken to a local minister who was said to have brought medicine from America, he reluctantly accompanied her after carefully wrapping the Bible the minister had given my grandmother with newspaper, lest someone in the neighborhood see him carrying it. At the door of the church, family members say, he turned his back, letting her limp across the threshold alone.

People such as my grandfather are rapidly dwindling in today's Korea. It is said that South Korean missionaries will go to the ends of the Earth in search of those most unwilling to be converted. As Christianity has taken firmer hold in the past few decades, riding the boom that has turned South Korea into one of the world's leading economies, competition among churches has turned fierce. Deploying missionaries abroad has become one of the quickest ways for a church to broaden its reputation and attract members. The more volatile the area, the holier the mission.

In highly wired South Korea, the debate is heating up online. President Roh Moo Hyun, who is Catholic, issued a statement yesterday asking bloggers to stop lashing out at the missionaries for bringing the nation to a standstill. His government is being criticized for not adding Afghanistan to its list of no-travel zones earlier. Some devout Christians are calling the abductees martyrs, evoking the self-glorification of extreme Islamist jihadists. The head of Saemmul Church has been forced to apologize to the nation for sending ill-prepared congregants on such a mission. Yet no one is questioning why South Korea, once pegged the Land of the Morning Calm for its Confucian virtue, is rapidly reinventing itself as the most evangelical Christian nation in the world.

Suki Kim, a 2006 Guggenheim fellow, is the author of the novel The Interpreter.